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A perfect Safari at Jackalberry Lodge

Our room – Room no 1

A unanimous family decision was made to escape the rainy icy winter weather in Cape Town and head towards the more forgiving climate of the Lowveld. The old adage is a change is as good as a holiday … which I took very literally for the first time in my life.

Having never ventured to this part of the world, we welcomed the change in pace; early morning game drives, days at leisure and stories around the campfire. A three-night, four-day sojourn had us wishing we could stay for longer.

 Day one:

“Hi, welcome to Jackalberry,” “my name is Lucy”, a small voice declares. In Lucy’s wake, I notice long strides of elegance making her way towards me. She hands me a warm refresher towel, a drink and extends her hand in welcome and introduction: “I am Atasja, may your stay here be unforgettable.” Lucy appears again, with a forlorn trolley that I think would never take all our suitcases. We packed for summer, winter and everything in-between.
“Your game drive is at 15:30,” Atasja explains. We are staying in Room 1, a two-bedroom retreat. Mosquito nets are draped from the four-poster bed where crisp white linen and earthy tones await your slumber. The en-suite bathroom’s corner bath has a view of the bush while an indoor and outdoor shower has you spoilt for choice.

After a quick lunch, we meet our ranger, Willie and tracker Themba. My request seems simple – I would like to see a leopard in the wild, all the while knowing that these illusive cats are very shy and rather inconspicuous. “I will see what we can find,” Willie promises. “This is the bush and on some days you see the Big 5 in one drive where other days yield nothing.”

There are nine of them, three cubs, a sub-adult male and four lionesses.”

Lion looking up at the human species.

Willie drives while Themba looks out for animal tracks. We stop at a dam where the one buffalo seems very nervous. The lions had been spotted on the banks of the dam earlier in the day. After driving through some dense areas looking for Simba, Willie and Themba tell us to stay put, while they leave the vehicle searching for tracks. Nothing.
An elephant is stripping a tree’s branch feasting on the leaves. The sun has set and we stop for sundowners. These lions must be somewhere, Willie insists. We continue on our pursuit and there they are, casually strolling in front of the vehicle. There are nine of them, three cubs, a sub-adult male and four lionesses. They hadn’t had a successful kill for two weeks and were stalking something in the thicket.
Dinner is a gastronomic feast where we all sit around a roaring fire sharing tales of forgotten youth. Off to bed with the anticipation of what we might see on our second day.


Lionness at night

Day Two:

Coffee and rusks ward off the early morning chill as we prepare for our game drive. Heading into the bush, we spot the nocturnal lions again, lying right in the middle of the road. They must have caught something – the cubs are now brown in colour and look like they are in dire need of a bath. The lioness gets up and the rest follow suit. “They are heading to the watering hole,” Willie exclaims. We drive around to witness them walking straight to their drinking spot. They start lapping up the water in unison.

A cub stays close to its mother and carefully looks on at the fine art of hydration.

We are off again. Themba notices some tracks but doesn’t disclose what they are. We head into a rather dense region, clueless of what we are about to see. Then I spot him and my heart starts to pound. Can this be or are my eyes playing tricks on me? He is so well camouflaged that you might mistake him for a tree stump. We park the vehicle and wait … there are two of them!

Lions drinking at the watering hole

Not wanting to scare them off, we patiently sit in the vehicle and wait for them to get used to our presence.”
The most beautiful five-month old leopard cubs. Not wanting to scare them off, we patiently sit in the vehicle and wait for them to get used to our presence. Little Mister Curious comes over to see what my daughter is up to. He makes eye contact with her and then vanishes into the bush again. Wow! What an unforgettable sighting. They were literally ten paces away. Their coat looked so soft, I wanted to reach over and touch them.

Willie suggests we stop for a quick break where we get served delicious muffins, rusks, tea and coffee. Back at camp after a hearty breakfast, the rest of our morning and afternoon is spent in the library area of Jackalberry, where a variety of books and board games lets you while away the time. For the technophiles, there is WiFi in the lounge and dining area.

Two leopard cubs

With lunch a thing of the past, Willie rounds us up for our afternoon game drive. A sighting of blubber can only be some hippos on the banks of the dam. We head into a different part of the reserve where Willie stops the vehicle and waits. “Can you see them”? he asks. The hyena pup sniffs the air, careens down the incline to take a closer look at us. Willie has to move the vehicle as these inquisitive creatures have a habit of chewing through wires.

The sun has dipped behind the horizon and we continue our drive. Willie stops and points in the direction of a log. I see the outline and then he starts to slink away from sight. Leopard Cub number 3!

Beautiful leopard cub

Day Three:

Few things rival a sunrise and sunset in the bush. Not only does it create some amazing photo opportunities, it heralds the promise of a new beginning or showcases the interesting behavioural traits of the nocturnal creatures.
Willie is intent on finding an adult leopard for us to see. With his tracking prowess, Themba only manages to find some lion paw prints. We catch sight of a family coalition; two sisters lying in the road while big brother takes a snooze under a tree. He momentarily opens his eyes to see what the human species looks like. We find their other brother having a siesta in the sand, oblivious to the excitement his presence causes those who have a camera.

On our way back to the lodge, we spot giraffe, zebra and a special sighting of the very boisterous black rhino. My daughter informs us that the black rhino is a lot more dangerous than the white rhino, he will simply charge at people without heeding a warning of his annoyance. Was I relieved to be safely ensconced in our vehicle?!
  Famished, we make it back to the lodge in time for breakfast. It is such a substantial amount of food that it sustains you well into the rest of the day. Imagine a variety of cereals, fruit and the traditional English breakfast washed down with orange juice, coffee or tea.

African sunset

…the only collateral between you and an animal appearing out of nowhere is Willie and his rifle.”
I am at the losing end of a game of Monopoly with my daughter when my husband announces that he is going on a walking safari. Together with Willie and another guest, the trio set off for an hour-long walk. Two hours later they return for a break just to vanish into the bush again. My husband later tells me that this experience was a highlight for him; being on foot and the only collateral between you and an animal appearing out of nowhere is Willie and his rifle. He continues to disclose that your senses are heightened; your perception of sound is amplified only by the beat of your heart. During their stroll, they encountered buffalo, elephants and a very colourful chameleon.

Literally ‘bushed’ from his walk, my husband decides to forego the afternoon game drive. Instead he tries out some of the amenities at Jackalberry – he takes a dip in the pool after which he enjoys a nap on a hammock.
My daughter and I finish our lunch and wonder what else Willie and Themba will find on our game drive. As we get to the vehicle, Dwayne, Willie and Atasja’s son is earning his Junior ranger stripes by putting Willie’s earpiece on. This cute little tot is sure to follow in his father’s footsteps. Imagine being fourteen months old and having seen the Big 5 during the first year of your life.

On our drive, zebra are grazing as the sun sets and in the distance we hear the unmistakable sound of lions roaring. These predators are very hungry and it seems as though the night with its twinkling stars might become fruitful for them.

Willie, Dwayne and Atasja


Last Day:

It is our last day at Jackalberry and I am ecstatic with the amount and proximity of game we have been fortunate to see. The sun rises like an orange phoenix behind the bare branches of a Marula tree.
Today, Willie and Themba are pulling out all the stops to make our last day the piece de resistance. Atop a donga, two leopard cubs are playing in the early morning warmth. The one is getting irate as the other one is using the white tip of its tail as a toy. Their pouncing actions entertain us for a while before they scurry off in search of their mother.

Hyena pup

As we battle through the density, we all gasp in union.”

Willie is talking into his handset while listening through his earpiece getting directions. This must be something worthwhile – he is determined to get us to the right spot. As we battle through the density, we all gasp in union. Holding my breath, I am horrified and elated to see the picture enfolding in front of me – nine lions feasting on a buffalo kill. The ghastly fragrance of dead meat fills the air, but the lions are undeterred by the smell; this is their first successful kill in a fortnight. Dirty cubs take cognisance of how to disembowel this humungous creature while the sub-adult male is attempting to flip the buffalo over, a seemingly demanding task. We leave the sighting to make space for more guests – there are only three vehicles allowed per sighting at Jackalberry.

Lions on a buffalo kill

It is time for us to check out. I take my time packing as I want to linger a while longer. Sure, we had the most mind-boggling animal sightings, but this time around, it was about the people we got to know. Atasja, Willie, Themba, Lucy and everyone who works so tirelessly at Jackalberry, we will never forget you.

Until next time, au revoir.


Our room with its beautiful four-poster bed

Nyala stopping for a bite to eat

Reading and games room

The room my daughter slept in

Elephant stripping the leaves off a tree branch

Sunset in the bush

Thank you to The Thornybush Collection for making our stay possible. Opinions expressed are the author’s own.

Image credits: Helene Ramackers

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